CHICAGO -- Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been so good for so long, it's easy to forget about how young he still is. It's also easy to understand why his teammates seemed as happy about the fact that Kershaw was going to the World Series as they were for themselves.
It was a day a long time coming in Los Angeles. On Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, behind a sterling outing from Kershaw, and an unbelievable three-homer explosion from Enrique Hernandez, the Dodgers hammered the Chicago Cubs 11-1 in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series and clinched their first pennant since 1988. After five straight division titles and seven playoff appearances during Kershaw's 10 seasons, the Dodgers have finally broken through.
"There are just so many things that I could probably touch on," manager Dave Roberts said. "The first thing that comes to mind is Clayton and how long he's been a Dodger and how much he's wanted this opportunity to win a championship."
Iconic manager Tommy Lasorda was in the dugout for the Dodgers in that NL pennant clincher played Oct. 12, 1988, and he watched Thursday's clincher from a suite at Wrigley Field. Afterward, Lasorda, who debuted as a player with the Dodgers in 1954, crammed in with the team, family members, the front office, owners and media into the underground batting tunnel at the Wrigley Field, watching the festivities with a look of satisfaction.
What Lasorda saw was a very different kind of team from the one he guided to the pennant. The clincher then also came with the staff ace on the mound, Orel Hershiser in that case, who threw a five-hit shutout against the New York Mets in Game 7. When you look at the metrics we've calculated about the '88 Dodgers since then, it seems clear that Hershiser carried the pitching staff and Kirk Gibson carried the lineup in a top-heavy roster construction.
There is no way to reduce the 2017 Dodgers' formula to the performance of stars. This team is about depth and balance, even though they have stars as well. The contributions came from every direction, and that as much as anything is why Kershaw is going to his first World Series.
"As far as our pitching staff goes, anytime [No.] 22 is on the hill, we have a good feeling," third baseman Justin Turner said. "This year has been even more special because it's not just about 22, it's Rich Hill and Yu Darvish and Alex Wood, and you start naming all these guys in our bullpen who, man, we can talk for hours about how good they were in this series.
"Just an incredible group of guys that are all-in and all together. There's no griping or moaning about who is getting to do what or who is not going to do this. It's about 25 guys trying to figure out how to win a ballgame every single day. The commitment to that and the buy-in to that is one of the most special things I've ever been a part of."
As for that last Dodgers Fall Classic, Kershaw was 7 months old. When asked after the game about the first World Series he can remember, he pointed to the New York Yankees of the late 1990s and the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.
Kershaw doesn't turn 30 until spring training next year. Yet he has done so much already.
"One of the things that I told him [was about] getting an opportunity to play for a championship," Roberts said. "He's done everything he can individually on the baseball field. But the one thing that he's missing is a championship.
"So he's very emotional tonight. He's earned that. It's only fitting that he started tonight's game."
Kershaw was the seventh pick of the 2006 draft out of Highland Park High School in Texas -- one spot behind Cleveland's Andrew Miller, and two spots behind current teammate Brandon Morrow. Kershaw was in the big leagues two years later at the age of 20. He was about league average that first season in 21 starts, a good showing for a pitcher so young, and got his feet wet with a couple of postseason relief appearances.
Since then, Kershaw has dominated the majors like few pitchers ever have. He has won three Cy Young Awards and was named NL MVP in 2014. He has led the league in ERA five times, wins three times and strikeouts three times, combining all three in 2011 to win pitching's triple crown. According to Baseball-Reference.com, only five pitchers have ever accumulated a higher WAR through the age of 29.
Kershaw has also appeared in the postseason those seven times, a luxury he does not take for granted.
"To be a part of an organization like this that gets to go to the postseason five times in a row and seven out of my [10 seasons]," Kershaw said. "That doesn't happen very often. Patience isn't the right word, but I guess I'm just thankful that I've gotten to have this many opportunities to get here. That's a testament to this organization."
His personal postseason history has been the cause of a lot of analysis, which blows up a few bad pitches here and a couple of bad innings there into a narrative that Kershaw folds on the biggest stage. That has never really been the case, especially when you factor in the short-rest outings he has made in years past, but the lack of postseason success was something that even Kershaw knows was a hole on his resume. So he kept working, like few players in the game work, and that's why his teammates react to him the way that they do.
"It's easy to say that the most impressive thing is when he takes the ball every fifth day," Turner said. "But for me, the more impressive thing is watching him go about his business on those other days, the four other days, and the work that he puts in, and the routine, and the tireless effort, and training.
"The amount of stuff that goes into his day, each and every day, to lead up to that start, is something that I've never seen out of anyone in my entire life."
But the Dodgers, as they are constructed, cannot be about Kershaw alone, because no one is asked to give more than they are able to give. That's why it was so fitting that Kershaw would come out and fire BBs for six innings in the clincher, then hand the ball to a bullpen that didn't allow a single run to the Cubs over five games in the NLCS. That's why it was so fitting that the Dodgers put up 11 runs in his clinching start, and that the real hero of the game was a utility player, Hernandez, who had a historic three-homer, seven-RBI night.
Kershaw seems genuine when he talks about the unique bond this team has with each other, not something that could always be said of some of the massively expensive Dodgers teams of years past.
"It really is a testament to this team and what we stand for," Kershaw said. "It's just next-man-up mentality. As a starting pitcher, when you get seven runs, your job is to get them back in the dugout as fast as possible.
"Fortunately for me tonight, I was able to do that for the most part. But it really is a special group of guys. It's tough to explain, but I'm just thankful to be a part of it right now."
Chicago's Willson Contreras lined a Kenley Jansen pitch to shortstop Charlie Culberson for the final out, setting off a celebration that began on the field, then spilled into the bowels and passageways of Wrigley Field. Kershaw raced off the field with his teammates, then disappeared into the dugout.
We next saw him visiting the team's batting tunnel, where the champagne party was held. Kershaw was with his teammates at one end of the tunnel, just one of the guys, getting soaked. His long blond hair and beard looked as if he'd taken a swim in vat of Asti Spumante.
"This whole night in general has been, I mean, when you're a kid, you just hope you make it to the big leagues," Kershaw said. "So to get to go say you're going to play in the World Series, it's an incredibly special moment. Up there with getting married and having kids, it's right up there with one of the best days of my life."
The players took turns in the middle of the celebration circle to get booze sprayed and poured on them as everyone else chanted their name. Team president Andrew Friedman got his turn, a reluctant one, as he was dragged into the circle, then hoisted onto somebody's shoulders.
Kershaw got his turn and the chanting and the cheering seemed a little more robust. When he turned around, red-faced and smiling, the only way to describe his expression was overwhelmed.
"It means a lot," Kershaw said. "I'm just happy. I'm really happy right now. I'm happy I can share it with this group of guys."
After doing a handful of interviews, he peeled off, saying he wanted to see his family.
A little later, upstairs at the media podium, co-NLCS MVPs Turner and Chris Taylor were talking. They were happy for themselves, happy for their teammates and, especially, happy for Kershaw.
For years, too many observers of the game have been asking the wrong question. Because it never should have been, "Why can't Clayton Kershaw carry his team to a championship?"
It should have been, "Why would it be necessary for Clayton Kershaw to carry his team to a championship?"
On the 2017 Dodgers, no one is carrying anyone, and everyone could relish L.A.'s pennant. Yet, no one could deny that the night belonged to Kershaw, a future Hall of Famer with one final little punctuation mark to make on his resume. He can start the process of doing just that in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, when he'll take the ball at the only home ballpark he's known.
"That means I'm working out tomorrow, so I'll see you guys at Dodger Stadium," Kershaw joked.
Clayton Kershaw. World Series. It just sounds right.
"Winning the World Series is really all that we play this game for," Kershaw said. "All the individual stuff is great, but at the end of the day I just want to win a World Series.
"If we win, I might retire. I might just call it a career," he said jokingly. "It's a special thing, and I know that I'm not taking that for granted."
Finally, it was Kershaw's turn to take to the podium. He brought his daughter with him and put her on a chair, telling her, "Daddy's got to answer some questions." She sat dutifully for a while but, well, she's a child, so she eventually wandered off. And as Kershaw answered question after question, it was his young son Charlie who finally got him off the hook by growing restless off to the side.
"That's probably the end of the interview, because Charlie's ready to go," Kershaw said.
And so Kershaw was off, on his way to his first World Series.